Red Herrings, Bloaters and Kippers

Red herrings, bloaters and kippers all begin life as herrings but are transformed by being cured in different ways.  Before electrical refrigeration curing fish by salting and smoking was an important method of preservation.

Of the three red herrings have the strongest taste.  They are made by soaking whole herrings in brine for up to three weeks and then smoking them for another two or three weeks.   This turns the flesh red.   Red herrings have been made for centuries.  In 1567 Thomas Nash wrote Lenten Stuffe, or the Praise of the Red Herring, in which he praises their keeping qualities and their ubiquity,

“… it is most precious fish-merchandise, because it can be carried through all Europe.  No where are they so well cured as at Yarmouth.  The poorer sort make it three parts of their sustenance.  It is every man’s money from the king to the peasant.”

These strongly flavoured fish have fallen out of favour but they live on in the phrase “red herring”, i.e. a misleading and irrelevant distraction.

Bloaters are a lot like red herrings in that they are not gutted or split before being cured, but bloaters are only lightly salted and lightly smoked.  The cure for bloaters is considerably quicker than for red herrings.  This produces a mild tasting soft fish which does not keep for very long.  Bloater paste, a Victorian tea time treat, was a way of extending the shelf life of bloaters.

Kipper workers in Craster, Northumberland. Photo from

John Woodger is credited with inventing the kipper in Northumberland during the 1840s.  His innovation was to split the herring along its back (not along the belly) and remove the guts.  Once this is done the herring is soaked in brine for 20-30 minutes and then smoked for 12-20 hours.  Regional variations mean that there are lots of different types of kipper.To summarise,

  • Red herrings – an old cure for whole herring that produces salty and highly smoked fish.  A good keeper.
  • Boaters – lightly salted and lightly smoked whole herrings.  Mild tasting.
  • Kippers – a 19th century innovation.  The fish are split, gutted and smoked.

Alfred Bird’s Custard

Bird’s custard powder.

Cornflour based custard is now so common that, for many of us, it is more “real” than the version made with eggs. Alfred Bird (1811-1878) is the man we need to thank for it.

Alfred set up himself up as “experimental chemist” in 1837. I am not entirely sure what an experimental chemist was meant to do but Alfred’s investigations were influenced by his wife’s delicate digestion.  Mrs Elizabeth Bird was unable to eat eggs or bread made with yeast so Alfred came up with alternatives.  Initially his inventions were only used at home but he went on to manufacturer them on a commercial-scale.  Custard powder was popular from the start.  It was cheap, simple to make and tasted good. By the mid 1840s it was being sold throughout Britain.

Alfred embraced the new opportunities of industrial Britain, which helped his firm to grow.  He put a lot of energy into promoting his products, which is reflected in the company motto,

“Early to bed, early to rise, stick to your work, and advertise.”

Later two of his sons joined the firm and more products were developed, including blancmange powder in the early 1870s and jelly crystal powder in 1895.   The firm, Alfred Bird and Sons Ltd, was bought in 1947 by the General Food Corporation.  Today the Bird’s brand is part of Premier Foods and the old Bird’s factory in Gibb Street, Birmingham is now part of an arts and media quarter called the Custard Factory.

Curry Powder Heroes

An advert for Vencatachellum’s curry powder from a 1930s recipe booklet, which warns against the perils of inferior curry powders.

Today we can be pretty snobby about curry powder.  How can a single blend of spices do justice to an enormous range of dishes from a huge geographical area?   Clearly it can’t, but curry powder did encourage the British to start cooking curries and for that Mr Sharwood and Mr Vencatachellum are heroes in my book.

Recipes for curry appear in 18th century British cookery books and Queen Victoria had Indian chefs working in the royal kitchens.  This early interest is hardly surprising given British activities in South Asia but, until the 20thcentury, curry was a minority taste.  It took some enterprising individuals to bring curry into mainstream eating.  The British Raj (1858- 1947) meant that plenty of British people returned home with a taste for spicy food. Some wrote Anglo-Indian cookery books, for example Col. Kenney-Herbert who wrote under the pen name of “Wyvern”.  His Culinary Jottings for Madras  was republished fairly recently.  Others opened restaurants, the Veeraswamy in London was one of the earliest and, many more followed in the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1890s a salesman called James Allen Sharwood (1859-1941) realised that there was a market for exotic chutneys, pickles and spices.   One of the products to come under the Sharwood’s umbrella was Vencatachellum’s curry powder. The Vencatachellum business had been operating in Madras since 1860 and a British patent for Vencatachellum’s curry powder was registered in 1894.  This mixture of saffron, turmeric, cumin, coriander and chillies, was sold well into the 20th century before Sharwood’s replaced it with its own blend.

Towards the end of the 20th century it took other food heroes and heroines to teach us to appreciate the finer points of spices.

Tin Can Pioneers

Bryan Donkin. The creative brain behind the first tin can factory.

The history of tinned food begins around 200 years ago.  The discovery that food could be preserved in airtight containers is normally credited to the French confectioner, Nicolas-François Appert (1749-1841).  He wrote a book about his experiments L’Art de Conserver Pendant Plusieur Années Toute les Substances Animales et Végétales  (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years) and, in January 1810, he won 12,000 Francs for his invention.   A scientific understanding of bacteria didn’t come until the mid-19th century so Monsieur Appert’s method was based on knowledge of traditional preservation techniques and careful observation.  Despite his cleverness, I think that, the real heroes of tinned food were the people who developed his idea.

First there was Peter Durand who suggested metal instead of Appert’s glass jars.  He filed a patent for his tins in August 1810.  Next there was Bryan Donkin (1768-1855) who, with two partners, John Hall and Mr. Gamble, acquired this British patent.   In 1813 the firm Donkin, Hall and Gamble set up the world’s first tin can factory in Blue Anchor Lane, Bermondsey, London.  The tins they made were large, heavy and sealed by hand soldering.   There is a photo of one of their tins here.  During the 19th century the process of making tin cans was mechanised and later automated.  These changes meant that tinned food moved from being something bought only by polar explorers and the armed forces and became an everyday domestic staple.

An early tin can factory, possibly Donkin, Hall & Gamble. Image from

Rather bizarrely the tin opener did not appear until 1855 when Robert Yates, a cutler and surgical instrument maker based in Middlesex and my final tin can hero, made a lever or claw tin opener.  Before then tins were often opened with a hammer and chisel.

The King of Golden Syrup

The classic green tin was introduced in 1885 and the design has hardly changed since then.

Abram Lyle (1820–1891) was responsible for producing and selling an awful lot of golden syrup.

Abram was born in Greenock, a Scottish port near Glasgow, which was heavily dependent on the sugar trade.  He attended a good local school until he was apprenticed to a lawyer at the age of 12.  Later Abram joined his father’s cooperage firm.  In addition to barrel making Abram developed a shipping business with his friend, John Kerr, which grew to be one of the largest in Greenock and made both men rich.  Abram and John expanded into sugar refining in the mid 1860sIt was probably at  the Glebe Sugar Refinery that a syrup by-product of the refining process, originally known as “Goldie” was first made and sold to staff and locals.

Abram Lyle by an unknown artist. Image from Wikicommons.

In 1881, Abram bought land in Plaistow, East London and began building a sugar refinery.   His sons managed this refinery on the banks of the Thames while Abram remained in Scotland.  In 1883, as the Plaistow refinery was getting established, Lyle’s and Sons suffered large losses due to a dramatic fall in the price of raw sugar.  The value of the sugar they were importing collapsed while en-route to Britain.  The Lyles’ businesses looked shaky.  Abram sold the cooperage business, his only steam ship and persuaded the bank to extend their credit.

Golden syrup was their salvation. Abram insisted that the refinery pushed ahead with production and Golden Syrup was profitable.  Part of the Plaistow refinery was devoted to making this partially inverted sugar syrup.  The Plaistow refinery became part of Tate & Lyle in 1921 and continued to produce Golden Syrup.   In 2010 it was sold to American Sugar Refining.

For more about the worker’s lives at Plaistow in the 20th century see the recently published book The Sugar Girls.

Flash Freezing

This American food hero has had a significant impact on British shopping and eating habits but only since the 1950s when domestic freezers became more common.

Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) was born New York and studied biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  For this story what is important is that between 1912 and 1916 he was working in Labrador, Newfoundland, a place at the top Eastern edge of Canada which gets extremely cold.His field journals from this period are held in the archives of Amherst College and reveal how he learnt about freezing food.  In Newfoundland he saw how the Inuit used the freezing conditions to preserve fresh fish and meat.  The arctic cold meant that things froze extremely fast and he concluded that it was the rapid freezing that meant the food tasted good months later.   Clarence thought he could make money out of this knowledge.

In the early 1920s he began experimenting with frozen fish.  At this time there were plenty of other people working on freezing technology but two things made Clarence’s efforts stand out.  First he developed a machine that could freeze food quickly, which gave the ice-crystals less time to grow and meant that the food was in better condition when it was defrosted.  Second, he packaged the frozen food into small waxed boxes, which were attractive to buyers.  This boosted the commercial success of Clarence’s frozen foods.  In 1929 he sold his firm and his patents, to organisations which later became the General Foods Corporation.  He continued to be involved, as a corporate executive until the late 1930s and his name lives on in the company brand.